New teachers

Teaching is absolutely the best job in the world, but it doesn’t always feel like that. The first year of teaching was, for me, the hardest. Yet in a way it is almost the best: in no other time of your career will you go so far so fast. By the end of the year, you will seem to be decades ahead of where you began. Here are some of my tips for new teachers.

Fake it til you make it

No-one needs to know you’re a new teacher, and it can be helpful to forget this fact yourself. Cling to all your past experience, whether that be in your placement school for your PGCE, or your Summer Institute teaching practice with Teach First, or your TEFL experience, or even tutoring your sisters/brothers. It all counts in the big performance of not carrying your new teacher baggage with you. Pretend, pretend, pretend.

Learn their names and use them

With every new class, I have a clipboard with the seating plan. Within a week, the clipboard can go away. Consult it for every question asked, for every hand up, for every cold call. Use the students’ names as often as you can – it means a lot to a child that you have learned their name, and you will be surprised at how offended they will be if you mispronounce it, even by a syllable.

Call home to say nice things

My mentor used to make three positive calls on a Friday before going home – no matter how bad your week, this will make you feel better and pave the way for a more positive Monday. On my darkest days even now I will call home to five or six students to say “well done.” It is great for the student, but also reminds you: you have done a good job. Indeed, parents will often be magnanimous in assigning you as the cause of their child’s wonders – on a tough day, take the credit.

Praise three before sanctioning one

Your students come into the room, and inevitably the first thing you will notice is the one (two, five, seven) doing something wrong. The temptation is to immediately call out these students. In the early days, however, a wall of misbehaviour can feel overwhelming: if you call out one/two/five/seven and not the other one/two/five/seven (“it wasn’t only me!”) you can redouble your problems. Try praising three before calling out any. Lee Canter talks about “behaviour narration”: “I can see X is standing behind her chair”, “has taken his coat off,” “is ready to learn,” “is doing the right thing,” for three students will usually ensure you have far fewer to sanction as more and more fall into line, wanting you to say their name positively. Most students just want some attention. If they know you will give it for positive things first, they may well switch their behaviour.

Don’t back down

That said, you will need to sanction students. In the heat of the moment, I know I often ran to the wrong sanction; usually one too harsh for the crime committed. No matter – stick to your guns. You threatened a one-hour detention? They sit a one-hour detention. You know you were wrong and you probably won’t do it again, but if you back down or negotiate with students who have done something wrong they will not learn to respect you. That said, do use that hour to reassure the student that you know they can succeed. And remember: it’s not the severity of the sanction but the certainty. Three minutes of their lunch hour will hurt just as much (and you can get on with your life).

Mark books

At the start of the year, look at your free periods and when you see your classes and set out a marking schedule for yourself. If possible, give yourself at least a day – don’t try to turn around a set of books from Wednesday to Thursday, for example. Think about how big (or how demanding) your classes are and make a rota; so all things being equal I would mark year 7, 9 and 10 one week and then year 8 and 11, as year 11 will want your most brilliant marking prowess. (This is, of course, assuming you are an English teacher with a normal amount of classes.) When you take in books, ask students to turn to the page you last marked: this way, you can have the last target you set in the back of your mind, as well as saving valuable seconds (they really do add up) by not having to find the right page to start on.

Be yourself

When attempting to “fake it til you make it,” it can be tempting to emulate your mentor, or your own favourite teacher from school, or the scary teacher you wish you were (I have tried and failed at all of these). Students see through it. You have to be yourself. I find it really hard to not smile and have a laugh with students; in the early days I suppressed this and found myself called out as a classroom ogre. It didn’t feel right. You will find your own classroom personality, and it might not fit any of the preconceived ideas you have about what being a teacher is. No matter. No-one will be you.

Good luck!

Teaching memoirs

I love a good teaching memoir. During my first year in the classroom, I relied on the Teach for America memoirs (which are legion) to provide hope that I would prevail, despite current adversity. I’ve also included some organisational biographies and books of leaders which I’ve found especially inspiring.

1. Taught by America, Sarah Sentilles

This is the first Teach for America memoir I read. Sentilles joined TFA as a member of the 1995 corps and was sent to Compton, a city south of Los Angeles. Her beginning days as a teacher will sound comfortingly familiar I think:

I woke up before 5am each school day, made myself breakfast and packed a lunch, drove to the nearest copy shop to make copies for that day’s lesson, and then hightailed it to Compton. I taught thirty-six students all day, and then I cleaned my classroom, graded papers, planned the following day’s lessons, drove home, opened a can of something to eat for dinner, and practically fell into bed. I often cried myself to sleep. The next morning it started all over again.

If nothing else will, these American teachers will make you grateful for your school copier (even if there’s a huge queue after 7:30am and it jams five times a day). The issues of unsettled homes are writ large in this book: Sentilles contends with an ever-changing register of names as children leave and move into the area. Despite these struggles, there are some truly heart-warming moments in this book – although the ending can be hard to swallow if you’re a hardened teacher (I won’t give it away here).

2. Hands up! Oenone Crossley-Holland

This is the sole Teach First memoir of a participant I have been able to find (if you know of another please do let me know). Crossley-Holland’s placement school was alleged to be the one near my own placement, and a girls’ school as well; I thought I’d find plenty to learn from here. I wasn’t disappointed. The writer takes you through several “typical” days, and some of the challenges (both external and emotional) of working in a “Teach First” school. I found the style of the book warm and the writer extremely likeable. Her dialogue is convincing and the students warmly depicted, with a real sense of them as humans, often flawed by factors not of their own making, and eminently lovable.

3. Whatever it takes, Paul Tough 

This isn’t a memoir, but rather a biography – yet it is also informative of the challenges facing our students, and inspiring in one man’s quest for educational equality, crusading outside a classroom. Geoffrey Canada, a teacher by trade, took it upon himself to transform the life chances of children growing up in Harlem, creating the “Harlem Children’s Zone”, and Tough chronicles his movement in this book. This book is a must-read for any would-be education-reformers, as well as anyone with an interest in the backgrounds of the students they find in their classrooms. Depressingly, it also shows us how vast the issue of educational inequality is; at the same time, one might also conclude that more people with Canada’s dedication can do much to turn the tide.

4. The Best Job in the World, Vic Goddard

I’ve never tried to hide it: I am a massive, massive fan of Educating Essex (any international readers: this is a Channel 4 series which documents the year in the life of an exceptional school in Essex, England). Goddard, in the series, is seen in headteacher-guise; a very human headteacher, but still one with all the confidence such a role illuminates. His autobiography shows us that such certainty is created, not inborn, and Goddard takes us through the highs and lows of his career, whilst simultaneously repeating his rallying cry to those new to the profession: become a headteacher; it is the best job in the world. There is much to learn here, both about teaching, learning, behaviour management and, especially, leadership.

5. Teaching in the Terrordome, Heather Kirn Lanier 

This is another TFA memoir, one about an English teacher. It is suffused with genuine humility, such as Lanier’s retelling of her first lesson with her students, where she wants them to see reading as a door to new and undiscovered worlds:

‘See! It looks like a door!’ I close the cover to illustrate, then open it again. I nod. “A book is a door! Reading is a doorway into a new world!’ I raise my eyebrows, I smile. They stare back blankly. They show no signs that they are enthralled by the prospects of visiting new lands via literature. No music plays in the background, and I win no one over.

The sheer belief you have in your students is often met with complete and utter apathy at first; in Lanier’s disfunctional school in Baltimore, she overcomes challenges I could only imagine, and reveals more about the disfunctional American system than perhaps any other memoir I have read.

6. Work hard. Be nice. Jay Matthews

This is another biography of an organisation, this time KIPP: a chain of hugely successful charter schools which have gone on to inspire many of their UK counterparts. This is the story of Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two of my heroes (and it is well worth following both on Twitter); of their initial experiences in the classroom (both were not born teaching prodigies, comfortingly) and their unstoppable drive to change education for the better for as many children as they could. The story is peppered with anecdotes which show the human and reflective side of the educators; my favourite is the one of the student who can’t finish her homework because she is addicted to television (something I sympathise with). Feinberg visits her home and asks the mother for the television set. She protests that it is their only one, and he responds:

That’s fine, but you tell me you are powerless to stop your daughter from watching it, so it seems to me the only way to make sure she doesn’t watch TV is to take the TV out of the house.

After the incident, Feinberg humbly admits he has overstepped the mark, yet there is something heroic in the anecdote I think we can all gain from.

7. Radical, Michelle Rhee

If ever there was a truly “Marmite” educational reformer, it has to be Michelle Rhee. She is known to many through her appearance in the documentary “Waiting for Superman”, wherein she becomes chancellor of schools in Washington D.C, said by some to be the most malfunctioning system in the states. Her central aim is to put students first; unlike my educational inspiration, Dr Irene Bishop (CBE; Superhead) who contends that to put students first you must look after your staff, Rhee often accomplishes this aim by firing “inadequate” heads and incentivising the best teachers financially. Although this sits uncomfortably with me, her invective against mediocrity is compelling. We must always be familiar with what we disagree with. And I don’t disagree with her aims, her intentions; only at times her method. Rhee’s style is powerful and she really takes you on her journey through education, as well as leaving you will an irrefutable call to arms.

This post is un-finishable; I have not explored There are No Children Here or In the Deep Heart’s Core, two of my very favourite books, as they mainly reiterate concerns above – but I would urge interested readers to read both; the first set in Chicago, the second Mississippi.

Finally: readers, please direct me to more teacher memoirs; share your favourites and, most importantly, go and write your own so I have more to read.

Too much fun

Perhaps it is the people whose work I encounter, but I feel recently as if, in general, the advice out there for teachers right now is: don’t have too much fun. It’s all about rigorous learning. And to a certain extent, I agree: children are in school to learn; we are educators, not entertainers, and if you plan a lesson to be “fun”, chances are students will leave having not learned much. I also know that each teacher is different, and has a different style, and that variety is part of the patternless pattern of all aspects of life.

But I also know I am guilty, deeply guilty, for having far too much fun. Clearing out my phone, I found a note written on 11th August 2013 called “new school year resolutions”. Many of these were regarding having an actual life beyond school, but the last reads: “improve rigour of learning – set the tone.”

Anyone who has met me will be aware that 1. I have zero capability of poker face and 2. I smile too much. Neither of these aspects bode well for a teacher. Somewhere along the line, I have learned to do an impression of an angry face, which is moderately effective. (Though quite a few of my students find this face hilarious, so I’m not sure it ever quite has the desired effect.)

You see, selfishly and stupidly, I still can’t quite get over my luck. Every single day I get to turn up to a place filled with wonderful colleagues, a desired level of challenge, a sense of academics, books, and children who really, really want to learn almost all the time. When I see students lining up for a lesson, even if I’ve had a terrible morning or a horrible meeting, I can’t help but grin. They’re so full of energy and hope, they give me energy and hope.

This might sound lovely to any non-teachers reading this, but too often this happiness bubbles over into fun. I’m not saying I plan lessons to entertain, I just get a little over-excited when teaching. I make only a few silly jokes and do a great impression of a teacher most of the time, but the tone of most of my lessons is a bit like a very controlled reading party.

Don’t get me wrong, I teach from the front for some time every lesson, and I make them write on their own for a quarter of the lesson. But in between that, my students can be trusted to discuss and try out and push limits and (crucially) stay on task. I still believe discussion is a necessary precursor to writing analytically. This discussion can be framed and guided; the activities around the texts can be varied and can occasionally involve a creative twist. These activities must be linked to the learning objective and the final desired outcome, but equally they must be engaging, or no-one will do them, and no-one will learn anything, and no good will come.

I have bad days and sad days, and days when it’s just not working, when I find myself giving too many warnings and even sending students out. I know I am the difference in the room, and with my usual approach that student would be sitting down doing the work. I know that extra effort on my part can make the difference, but it’s not easy to consistently manage behaviour in a completely positive way in 10 out of 10 lessons (though very many teachers do it), especially at the end of a term when you are tired and they are tired. After all, the stuff of learning is hard, and teachers and students alike both have bad, sad days.

So, where is this going? I’m not sure how much I agree with my August self. I have found that when I “set the tone” in this rigorous way, it tends to translate into overly didactic, overly controlled and overly sombre experience. I’m being someone else, and I’m not a good enough actor for my students to trust that person. I’ve always found that students respond to reality: they need to know the person you present to them is who you really are (not the same thing as knowing anything about your private, non-teacher life). And what I hesitate to add for fear of hubris is that my students do really well; often far beyond what is expected of them. If what I did wasn’t working, I would change it, immediately, despite my personal reservations and predilection for having a fun time.

Perhaps in the past too much emphasis has been placed on fun. But a lesson devoid of joy doesn’t work for me; it doesn’t make teaching a career I want to be in and it doesn’t make my students learn.

There are no shortcuts

Teaching is really, really hard. Anyone who is a teacher already knows this, but I need to preface this post with that key piece of information lest any non-teachers be reading. Yes, it is the greatest job in the world, but it is also, at times, unremittingly tough.

I wanted to write about Rafe Esquith, because I am coming to the end of my third year, and teaching is still really hard. Esquith was one of my first-year crutches: when I wanted to give up, or thought “actually, I’m making no difference at all, and I don’t really know how to”, I would pick up one of his books and I would find the tenacity to carry on.

Thank you, Rafe Esquith, because those hard times became fewer and further between, and I stuck it out. But there are still times where you wonder “is it worth it?” – those are the times you need this book. Maybe leaving school after an arduous parents evening which has made your in-school working day 13 hours long, and that’s before you mark year 9 at home. Maybe in those long winter months, when you leave home and it is pitch black and you return home and it is pitch black. Maybe after marking 28 essays and 28 books and organizing revision clubs and breakfast boosters and lunch boosters and a student still says: “I don’t understand. I need more help”; or more time, which you don’t have, because the exam is this Monday, and you have 27 other students, and this child has only just started to care about their exam, and if they had cared two years ago they might not be saying this now.

Whatever the scenario, when in doubt, read “There are No Shortcuts.”

Rafe Esquith works in a system that sounds tougher than anything I have ever heard of in the UK. Early on in the book, Esquith writes to new teachers: “outstanding teaching will require you not only to do everything in your power to reach your students but to battle the forces that are supposed to be on your side.” His is an administration doggedly opposed to any kind of innovation or creativity in the classroom, portraying low expectations of children at every turn. One example of this is that he can’t teach a full text; he needs to teach snippets of great literature to drill kids in multiple choice exams which say nothing about their aptitude for essay writing. As an English teacher, my heart hurt when I realized that an act of rebellion was teaching a full text, something I took utterly for granted. Indeed, Esquith advises to “read your favourite books with your students”, something I can already do, thanks to an incredibly trusting Head of English.

Esquith teaches fifth grade in a primary school in an extremely deprived part of Los Angeles. The rallying cry of this book is in the title: there is no magic way to help students catch up who are far behind their peers. You just need to work at it; and Esquith does: terrifying commitment is shown in every utterance. At times, you do wonder whether he is not actually an exception, and whether all folk could find this level of hard work sustainable.

What is great about this particular book is that you realize that Esquith did not always get it right. He made mistakes, and yet persevered, and altered countless lives. This is comforting to any teacher beginning to doubt their “calling.”

So, if ever you need your fire for teaching re-lit (and “Lighting their Fires” is another Esquith I would recommend), turn to dear Rafe, marvel at his efforts, and remember he is a human just like you, and what you do is amazing.